What is Census Advertising Worth?

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) seems to share some of my views on misappropriation of government funds. They attack government officials for frivolous spending and improper distribution of tax money. I love the idea. I wholeheartedly endorse organizations that wish to limit government waste. I am all about efficiency.

CAGW, however, seems to have disregarded a fundamental attempt to identify the truth (i.e. they didn't do any research). The president of CAGW, Dan Williams, openly bashed the Census Bureau's Superbowl ad as a "colossal waste of money." The advertisement cost nearly $3 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the $133 million the Census Bureau plans to spend on advertising between now and May. In the same Fox News Article, Williams says, "That's a lot of money to spend on a glorified public service announcement. While they're counting people, we're going to be counting the dollars that they're spending." Further support of their argument was proclaimed by an outraged John McCain on his Twitter page: "While the census is very important to AZ, we shouldn't be wasting $2.5 million taxpayer dollars to compete with ads for Doritos!"

The Fox article (supposedly "news"--fair and balanced, of course) makes no effort to convey the Census Bureau's reasons for spending the money on the Superbowl ad. Apparently, the CAGW made no effort to ascertain the reasons either. The organization just attacked the Census Bureau for wasting our money. To level the playing field against the willful ignorance (or laziness), I'll provide you with the reasons and "let you be the judge," as O'Reilly likes to say.

The Census Bureau is charged with counting all the people in our country as dictated by the Constitution of the United States of America. To do so, they rely greatly on our voluntary cooperation. It's important that we participate. The Census determines how many members of the House of Representative are issued to each state. It is the primary source for figuring out where aid and grant money is sent. It also serves to paint a portrait of our economy, diversity, and progress, or lack thereof, in many social areas. To do this, the Census Bureau mails out a mandatory ten question form. If we do not fill out the form, the Census Bureau is forced to send temporary employees to our homes, knock on our doors and make us fill out the form. It is quite the process, let me assure you. Census Bureau employees must figure out which households have not filled out the form, track the residents down and get their answers. It costs the American taxpayer $85 million for every one percent of mailers not returned.

To reach a wider audience, the Census Bureau has partnered with over 170,000 business and organizations to help raise awareness about the importance of filling out the census form. They have dumped millions into advertising and nationwide tours trying to get people to mail back the forms. If all of the Census Bureau's efforts convince only two percent more people to mail back the forms, then we save money. According to an article from the political website The Hill, the Superbowl ad likely saved us $30 million.

If it makes a noticeable difference, I'm all for advertising the hell out of the census. If next year reveals that all their efforts made little difference, I'm against it. To provide some recent perspective, in the 90's, the Census Bureau spent $167 million in advertising and the participation increased by six percent. If that is any indicator of today's efforts, this year's census advertising could save us about $377 million.

So, that's the argument for the Superbowl ad. Is it a good idea? You be the judge!


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